Meet the farmers supplying Coles with a new vegie

16th June 2017 9:15 AM
Paula and Des Chapman of Rocky Ponds with Kabocha pumpkins Paula and Des Chapman of Rocky Ponds with Kabocha pumpkins Contributed

DES and Paula Champman were travelling through Europe when they stumbled across the Kabocha pumpkin.

The pair thought the pumpkin stood out against the rest.

So when they returned home Des asked the seed company if they could access the seed and if it was not in Australia to bring it in so they could start trials on it.

Now, three years on, and the pair from Rocky Ponds Produce have mastered the art of growing the Kabocha pumpkin.

So much so they have signed an agreement with Coles to supply the vegetable to stores throughout Australia.

Des and Paula have been dealing with Coles for more than 20 years now, with the grocery giant always inviting the north Queensland pair to source new products for it.

"So throughout the year we do several hundreds of trials, some may be the same trial 10 times,” Des said.

"If we see something that is good, we will trial it to bring it up to commercial reality. Coles will put it through their food technologists/cooking crew and if they like it they will proceed.

"We started that (with the Kabocha) three years ago and it took two years to get it into Coles, but now it's up and running.”

Des and Paula first got their start in the growing industry 38 years ago on a 56ha property.

They started out growing cucumbers and eggplants but soon moved on to capsicums, rockmelons, honeydews and pumpkins.

As their crops changed and grew, so did their property - 56ha quickly grew to 800ha, with 600ha being farmed.

"That's where we are today still (growing pumpkins). The transition took about five to six years and there was some very, very tough years,” Des said.

"We've been through cyclones, droughts and everything else, so it is very trying.

"But we've learnt a lot and enjoyed it. It's the challenges we are faced with each year that keep us here.”

Despite the struggles, Des and Paula have always pulled through.

"There's always a challenge but Coles have supported us, so if it probably wasn't for Coles we wouldn't be so interested in staying on, but they've been good to us,” Des said.

Last year, Rocky Ponds received a $400,000 grant from the Coles Nurture Fund to build a state-of-the-art nursery with a fully computerised irrigation and fertigation system to boost productivity by up to 20% and create 15 new jobs.

Coles general manager, fresh produce, Brad Gorman said the technology meant the farm could be controlled anywhere in the world.

And with Coles selling more than 10 million kilograms of pumpkins each year, it makes the vegetable one of the biggest sellers on the shelf.

"Des and Paula are always looking at innovative ways to make their family business at Gumlu grow, so it's been fantastic working with them to help them expand their business and bring something different to our customers,” Brad said.

"We know our customers love the traditional pumpkin varieties so we're pleased to support Rocky Ponds to bring customers an exciting new type of pumpkin to try in their meals,” he said.

Des said ever since tasting the pumpkin in Europe he had fallen in love with it.

"It's good for you so I'm going to get very healthy eating it all the time,” he laughed.

"I've eaten a lot more pumpkins since this one came around.

"I encourage people to have a go at it. I know we're doing something with the Kabocha in Queensland next week so if they want to jump onto the Golden Kabocha they should get a fairly good price.”

Des said the secret to a good pumpkin was overcoming challenges such as making sure it did not have a damaging disease or to overspray it.

"It's got to be grower friendly. It has to create yields and be cost-effective to harvest and send it off, otherwise nobody will buy it because it's too expensive,” he said.

"The Golden Kabocha ticked the boxes and people loved the taste so Coles gave it the approval.”

Des said with Coles backing Rocky Ponds he would be in the industry for a while longer yet.

"I sometimes ask myself the question, 'why do I stay?',” he laughed.

"But each day there is a new challenge and you have to solve it so you need to keep going for that.

"You never get bored, I can tell you that.”